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Arthur Spence - North West Frontiersman!

Posted Friday, July 6, 2007

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The Gift of Arthur Spence – North West Frontiersman!

`the toast of the County Council-run Derbyshire Records Office in Matlock'

Chesterfield woman, Miss Joan Spence (nee Robinson) of Oakfield Avenue has become the toast of the County Council-run Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock after presenting them with a rare gift - a collection of seven unique photograph albums from a legacy left by her late father.

Arthur Leslie Spence was the son of a cabinet maker from Kettering in Northamptonshire, a keen amateur photographer and member of the ARPS who died aged 62 in 1951.

During the First World War he was a soldier in the British Army attached to a wireless/telegraphy unit (now called radio-communications) serving on the North West Frontier of India.

He also served on campaigns in Afghanistan and Persia (now Iran), and in border areas which now form part of modern-day Pakistan, and his camera recorded over five hundred unique photographs, which provide a rare historical and personal view of military and civilian life on India’s North West Frontier almost a century ago.

Rare Photographs:

The collection includes many scenes showing Private Spence and his comrades bivouacked with their bulky equipment in a series of camps and temporary tented army outposts along the Indian Frontier. These depict a strong sense of cameraderie amongst the troops, a mix of British and Indian forces; for example, in one scene a Gurkha is showing a small group of British soldiers squatting around a camp-fire how to make chapattis!

Another rare photograph shows reconnaissance airplanes on the Frontier in 1916, probably the first time they had ever been seen in India, and only five years after they were used for the very first time in warfare by the Italians at Tripoli in 1911.

Legacy - Thousands of Photographs:

Ms.Spence, who was born in 1928, educated at a boarding school in Harpenden, Herts, and was evacuated to Devon during the war, is a spinster and former nurse who inherited the collection when her mother died in 1975. She recalls that her mother and father met on a church outing, they were both keen churchgoers who attended the Congregationalist Church and they married in Chesterfield in 1921.

She also recalls that her father was a keen naturalist, who did not take up the family cabinet-making business because “he was an artistic sort”.

His legacy of photographs includes a detailed series taken on a cycling trip in 1910 around pre-war France, and Ms. Spence says she has “thousands of other pictures in addition to the military service albums”.

North West Frontier Campaign:

The historical and political background to the North West Frontier campaign was a long and complex one, which had the seeds of it’s beginnings sown in Persia when the Shah died in 1907 and was succeeded by his son, Mohammed Ali, who was himself deposed two years later by Sultan Ahmed Shah amidst great civil unrest. At the same time the British Raj was in hostile dispute with Germany over control of the Great Baghdad Railway, and ethnic opposition to British rule in India was also growing, especially after the Coronation of King George V and the Durbar in Delhi in 1911.

Since the British had assumed direct rule in 1858, India had consisted of crown territories and over six hundred Princely States, some of which remained in open rebellion. Tribal passions in India and along the whole North West Frontier region became inflamed following the arrest of Mahatma Ghandi, the elected leader of the Indian Passive Resistance Movement, in 1913. Six months later the First World War began.

The Khyber Pass border region came under threat when Tewfik Pasha became Grand Visier of Persia, and tribal unrest, fuelled by dissention between Muslim and Hindu factions in border areas between Afghanistan, India and Persia, forced troops from both the British Army and the Indian Army to be mobilised along the North West Frontier.

The British Army had two reasons for being on there during the First World War; firstly to prevent an invasion of India from the north-west, and secondly to maintain order and prevent raiding from the mountains – and to maintain British prestige by punishing recalcitrant tribes.

The Marri Punitive Force of 1917-18 in which Arthur Spence was involved, was a typical example of a deterrent expedition, but generally punitive expeditions were only employed as a last resort. Most involved men from the Punjab Frontier Force and local levies, although British and Gurkha troops were also used. Normally, a punitive expedition would destroy crops, forts, rebel strongholds or villages, to force the tribe involved to hand over criminals and rebels – or to pay compensation.

Rare & Valuable Resource:

Thus this whole collection provides a rare and valuable historic resource because archives of the North West Frontier campaign are scarce, and for a number of reasons; photography was in it’s infancy, cameras and equipment were bulky, and generally, only advance reconnaissance units and trained members of the Pioneer Corps took `official’ photographs.

Much of the NorthWest Frontier Campaign archive held at Whitehall and intended for the Imperial War Museum’s photographic archive was lost during the Blitz on London in 1940 – and many private collections were lost or destroyed during the two world wars.

Significantly, in addition to the `official’ looking photographs of Marri Punitive Force troops moving through deserts and mountains, and historic scenes showing negotiations for the surrender of Marri rebels, there are numerous photographs of daily life in the local Frontier communities.

Life in the bazaars, street barbers, women workers along the roads, and labouring in the sugar-cane fields, professional scribes in bazaars, a market gardener and his family, and carpet weavers in Afghani and Persian villages, are just a few examples.

One series of photographs taken towards the end of the campaign relates to an expedition in Baluchistan, now part of Pakistan during 1917/18, and gives a very vivid picture of what travelling was like in this historically important, but bleak frontier region. There is also a series showing the historic buildings in Delhi, and all are historically valuable

The collection will be of special interest to those with present-day family links to Pakistan and Western India, as well as to local military and social historians.

All of which makes the Arthur Spence Collection a valuable addition to the Derbyshire Records Office, which, says his daughter Joan, is “absolutely delighted” with the acquisition!

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